Many years ago, I discovered that business is fun.
Of course, my dad contributed to this way of thinking. As missionaries in Nigeria, my parents discovered that relatively simple tasks could be maddeningly complicated. Just one example: it took over 45 minutes to purchase a stamp at the local post office. That’s why, as a Presbyterian minister, he later went back to school and wound up with a Ph.D. in international business. Business can be a powerful means for serving human need, he reasoned.
Many years later on a different continent, it takes a couple clicks and only a few seconds, and I can buy as much postage as I’d like. Why? In a word, business. Innovation of all sorts has permeated our culture, in the form of better technology, health care, communication, you name it.
We can probably agree that business is a major driver of not only economic, but social change. Not that it’s all good, but that’s exactly why we need to consider the bigger picture: what is the purpose of business in our world? How can we harness its value for the good of mankind?
Here’s a thought from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:
“When managed well, businesses actively enhance the dignity of employees and the development of virtues, such as solidarity, practical wisdom, justice, discipline, and many others. While the family is the first school of society, businesses, like many other social institutions, continue to educate people in virtue, especially those young men and women who are emerging from their families and their educational institutions and seeking their own places in society. Those who come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and who are threatened with social isolation may also find their places within companies. Furthermore, businesses promote healthy interdependence among the peoples of different nations by promoting interaction between them in a way that is mutually beneficial. They may, thus, become vehicles of cultural engagement and promoters of peace and prosperity.”
– Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection (#3)
I love that! The caveat is in the first three words – but think of the opportunity implicit in terms of “the development of virtues.” Businesses (whether for-profit or non-profit) are well suited “to educate people in virtue” by providing strong example (leadership), a clear purpose (focus on mission), and appropriate controls to encourage virtuous behavior.
One of the reasons I appreciate this perspective is the fact that it resonates with my own experience. As a young accountant, I was thrilled to work with a CPA firm known for providing outstanding service. Not only was it a great way to earn a living for my wife and our growing family, it provided a never-ending stream of professional challenges from which to learn. In addition, I was privileged to work with a lot of people who were smarter than me. It’s a wonderful way to learn!
Later, one of the experiences that really stuck with me was working with a large Goodwill Industries affiliated organization. I have long had an affinity for Goodwill due to its impressive mission: Goodwill works to enhance the dignity and quality of life of individuals and families by strengthening communities, eliminating barriers to opportunity, and helping people in need reach their full potential through learning and the power of work. (See www.goodwill.org)
I’ll never forget my introductory tour of the organization, my first as a member of the external audit team. We visited various departments, and met members of management along with many employees, several of whom had profound disabilities. One guy in particular amazed me. He wore a hockey helmet, as he was prone to falls, I was told. Yet he was the epitome of graciousness and diligence. As we entered his work room, he greeted us with a huge smile and cheerful “Hello!” We were told about some of the challenges he had overcome in life, and how much he loved his job. It showed: I have rarely seen anyone so meticulous and focused. I left deeply impressed with the organization and its team members.
Building virtue is important for all of us, as individuals, and in our organizations. Business gives us the opportunity to learn, grow, and generate wealth for our families and others. Yet let’s remember to think of wealth in a broader context than simply money. Business really can be a powerful means for serving human need – and reaches its pinnacle by exercising and engendering virtue. Besides, it’s fun!
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